Downtown View:The Growing Obsession with Mattresses

By Karen Cord Taylor

What is this growing obsession with mattresses?

Mattresses—possibly one of the most boring items you’ll ever need or buy—have exploded in heft, risen in price, peppered malls and downtown Boston streets though the growing number of mattress-specialty stores, become a topic of concern in newspaper and magazine articles, been featured in the most expensive ad space, page three, of the New York Times, and remarkably, for a product that no one else but you sees, are now a status symbol.

At least if you have a Louis Vuitton bag, people will know you paid a lot for it even if it still looks like cheap vinyl. With a mattress, however, you can shell out $12,000 for a Duxiana, and no one will notice unless you tell them—or invite them into your bed, but that’s not the topic of this column.

Mattresses are sort of like water—in both the makers have persuaded the public that a low-cost, familiar item now needs to be juiced up and priced at a premium.

Maybe the mattress obsession reveals something about Americans right now. It probably has nothing to do with Donald Trump—although the Trump phenomenon is so weird that we may find Donald Trump behind the mattress thing too. But right now, with no evidence of the brand, Trump Mattresses, I’m going with the idea that we’re susceptible to mattresses because something is going on in our health or culture.

For example, sleep may be a bigger problem for Americans than it used to be. Since I’m the world’s best sleeper—go to bed at a reasonable time, fall asleep immediately, wake up in time to hear Morning Edition—you can’t prove it by me.

So I contacted my niece, Melisa Moore, a Philadelphia-based PhD in clinical psychology and board-certified in behavioral sleep medicine.

She said people appear to be getting less sleep because they are spending more time on devices. She also said that with increasing obesity, some people fall victim to sleep apnea, which interferes with sleep.

Ads for mattresses claim their product will help alleviate neck and back pain, snoring, night sweats and jiggles from your partner if you sleep two to a bed.

Melisa wasn’t so sure about whether a mattress would do all the things the makers claim. “Scientific evidence is scant and not consistent,” she said. “Most studies have not been conducted in the US.”

She said old mattresses that have accumulated dust mites might be problematic for sleepers with asthma or eczema.

Like houses and other things, mattresses have grown bigger. It used to be that couples slept in double beds. Then mattresses became queen and king-size. For the past decade they’ve become McMattresses, as thick as 18 inches. You’ll have to invite Arnold Schwarzenegger over to lift that mattress so you can  make the bed.

Melisa said one small study in India found that sleeping on a thin foam mattress less than ten centimeters did lead to increased back pain, but that’s really thin. Otherwise, if a mattress feels comfortable, it probably is, and thickness doesn’t matter.

Consumer Reports has rated 58 mattresses and recommended 24 of them ranging from $470 to $3,000, so it must not be that hard to get a good mattress. But they caution that a mattress labeled firm often isn’t and that price is no indication of quality. They recommended a $500 mattress and did not recommend one costing $7,595. So there you are.     I tried to get an opinion from the mattress industry of why there were so many mattress stores these days and why so much advertising and choice. I was unsuccessful. I called a Houston-based company that owns several different national chains. Their marketing company returned my call but told me that all the people who could answer my questions were busy for the rest of the week.

Then I tried the three Sleepy’s stores that are listed as operating in downtown Boston. No one picked up the phone at any of the them. Maybe they were too busy explaining the finer points to hoards of customers.

It began to look as if there are no secrets to mattresses no matter what the ads say or the sales people recommend. Check Consumer Reports. Then go lie down on a mattress in a store. If it feels good and you can lift it to change the bed, get it. Keep it for as long as it feels comfortable.

Since mattresses have only a little to do with getting a good night’s sleep, Melisa’s recommendations make sense. Keep a consistent sleep/wake schedule. Avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine before bed. Don’t nap during the day. And stay off the devices.


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